Look out for grapes

I’ve returned to Australia permanently. My husband and I are living with my parents in a suburb on the outer edges of Sydney, still made up of small farms and market gardens but with the tide of the expanding city lapping up against it.  It’s where I grew up. A major supermarket opened a branch here a few years ago. Even though I could see the size of the site when it was being built, I was still surprised when the completed supermarket was a huge barn of a thing –  not the petite glorified shop that I had been expecting.

In the fruit and vegetable section (which soon put paid to the greengrocers that had been in the area for as long as I could remember), there are signs warning customers to ‘look out for grapes’. They’re not just by the apparently insidious grapes, but dotted throughout. I can only imagine there was a costly slip and fall incident. I couldn’t help but think of our local supermarket in Mumbai, which during its many months of renovations had a floor covering that was largely composed of cardboard boxes irregularly duct-taped together, over a rockier topography of wires and power cables.  No signs. I guess the risks are lower when almost everyone wears flat sandals of some kind and is used to streets and sidewalks pitted with hazards.

I’ve travelled a lot, but our year in Mumbai was the first time I’d spent an extended period living in – as opposed to travelling through – a country where I didn’t speak the language. Or, to be accurate to India, any of the languages. I spent a lot of time by myself, working on manuscript for a legal textbook, and until I had the pleasure of making friends in Mumbai about halfway through our stint it was sometimes blackly lonely. My husband, who was working on a secondment at an Indian company, had very different challenges that were largely to do with communication rather than its lack. But I’ll allow myself the traditional self-indulgence of the blogging medium, and talk about me rather than about him!

There was always some degree of communication shortfall. With everyone. Indian English and Australian English are very different in idiom and slang. Indian English uses tense in a way that I found very confusing. Early on, our driver Sagar texted me ‘I am coming to Solitaire’ (our building).  What he meant was that he had arrived – or as an Indian would say, ‘reached’ – but I thought he meant that he was on his way, and spent half an hour tapping my fingers in agitation, waiting for him upstairs and cursing being late for my appointment with customs.   This kind of continuous present tense made it difficult to determine whether something had happened, was happening, or would happen.  A lot of Indians that spoke fluent English still had terrible trouble with my accent. What I think of as being direct was often crassly blunt by local standards. (Some might say this is not a problem unique to India). We had extensive trouble with our visas that delayed our departure from India by weeks. The delayed departure, and some other administrative difficulties, meant that there was a bigger financial knot than usual to untangle regarding giving up our flat. I had emailed one of the two real estate agents (both named Nilesh, and known to us as Nilesh the Younger and Nilesh the Older – we generally dealt with Nilesh the Younger) a few times to try to agree the figures involved. I hadn’t heard anything from him. At this stage, after weeks of dealing with officialdom and being unable to leave the country, even the outline of an obstacle filled me with panic. Lots of people, usually people who had never visited India, told me that it teaches you acceptance. You do learn acceptance in India, because there is no other choice.  If you are a foreigner and are there long term, there is no other response that is logical. But I had scented home, and was anxious to do what I could to get rid of anything else that would stand in our way. I’m a lawyer. So I wrote a letter.

I punched out a peremptory email to Nilesh the Younger, demanding that he explain the delay and confirm the final figures. He rang me, distressed that I had been so pushy. Their offices were nearby (they shared a shop with a mobile phone repair service, in a sort of mezzanine area that was so low-ceilinged my 6′ husband could never stand up there), and we agreed that he would come to the flat so that we could talk about it in person and make an inspection. Nilesh was at pains to explain to me that both he and the owners wanted to be reasonable, as we had been good tenants. I wanted specifics, and started to name figures prefaced by the old lawyer standby of ‘for the sake of argument’. Record scratch. ‘But there is no need for argument! We are not having an argument!’  It took ten minutes to steer the conversation back on course. Nilesh wanted to talk about the business relationship, when all I was interested in was the outcome.  

We’ve been back in Australia for a little over a month now, and it’s been much more difficult than I expected. Some things are structural stressors – looking for work, looking for a place to live, commuting into and out of the city. But I’ve found restarting our lives here generally incredibly stressful.  I’ll never forget coming into Sydney CBD the day after we arrived, and feeling like I’d been parachuted into somewhere that I’d never been. The first few days of being in the city, where I’d lived and worked for years, exhausted me as instead of hearing other people’s conversations as background noise occasionally peppered with numbers, colours, and words for food – I understood it all. (Just like Buffy in ‘Earshot’). And because I understood, I had to relearn how to filter. Just as I feel like I’ve had to relearn how to talk to people, with varying degrees of success. When there’s always a shortfall of communication to some degree, being somewhat understood feels like success. And here I need to do better than ‘somewhat’. And I’ve become an awful cultural cringe person, feeling dull and hollow at such a widespread culture of entitlement meshed with ungenerousness in a country of wealth and space and air like Australia. Perhaps I feel more different than it seems I actually am.

Although I often complained about standing out in Mumbai, I see now that there’s a certain amount of freedom to being unarguably an outsider. Here, I am supposed to belong. I am supposed to know how this works. But I feel like I’m drawing a map in crayon as I go along.  When we were in Mumbai, we were Living in India. No-one can say that Living in India is not A Thing. Here, we are now working/buying a car/looking for a house/looking for a house to buy/talking about carseats/writing a book/working on new software/on some kind of a track we see but darkly. And I don’t feel like I know how to get there. It’s nothing but grapes.


  1. Wait, what? Talking about car seats?!?!

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